Fact: The quickest way to attract students (and usually professors) is to promise food of any kind.
Whereas I should be asking, "Interpretable natural language models talk vs. a mentorship lunch for women in computer science?" ... I find myself asking, instead, "Do I want free Brazilian BBQ or free Indian curry?"
Some graduate students even search their inboxes for the words “free food” to scout out that night’s dinner and saunter into industry talks knowing nothing about the sponsors except that they’re serving pizza.
As for me, upon arriving at MIT, my fascination with food and delight in plotting my next meal quickly developed into a quest to become Yelp Elite.
Yelp is an online platform for rating and reviewing restaurants and other local sites, and it rewards the most eager, prolific, and witty reviewers with the title of “Elite.” After writing an ambiguous but usually tremendous number of reviews, Yelp Elite members receive admittance to a squad of likeminded epicureans and invitations to local events with free food and alcohol.
To a food enthusiast who eschews food pretension, this was the holy grail of inclusive gluttony. Even more than the perks, however, I found myself coveting the internet street cred of a certified Elite reviewer, complete with a tiny pixelated badge on my profile.
With a hungry belly and nimble fingers, I embarked on a journey to assess the countless restaurants of the Cambridge-Boston area. Unknowingly, I stumbled onto fervent debates as I increased my radius of culinary exploration.
- What is the one bakery to rule them all? (Flour over Tatte every day.)
- Where is the best pad thai within walking distance? (Pepper Sky for the lazy, and Nine Tastes in Harvard Square for the long-legged.)
- Which bar has the best trivia night? (Asgard? Still evaluating.)
With each review, I ventured further, crossing Harvard Bridge into Boston and bringing others for the voyage. Fine food, here we come.
Amateur food reviewing is not a solo sport. Eating alone is exhilarating and everyone should try it at least once, but even when perched at the bar of Craigie on Main worshipping their off-menu burger, I had virtual company.
Every restaurant I researched before visiting had the whispers of hundreds of previous Yelpers guiding me towards which dish to order and when to go. Over time, I got a sense of the local characters and their Yelp personalities.
Favorites included: Sarah M.’s assessments on a restaurant’s willingness to accommodate her dietary restrictions; Jamie R.’s consistently gorgeous food pictures that belonged on Instagram; and George C.’s strange insistence that a restaurant allow him to butter his own toast. (Names changed to protect the guilty.)
Eating physically together with people, however, builds a bond that the stresses of grad school cannot break. On Thanksgiving, after writing 100 reviews and with victory so close, I convinced three fellow students to join me for a three-course Peking Duck spread at China King where crispy duck, paper-thin pancakes, and tiny saucers of plum sauce covered the table.
In the tiny corner restaurant with only a handful of tables and a brisk gust swooshing in whenever the door swung open, we celebrated fantastic food and fantastic friends.
The Elite Squad
It was a groggy and cold January morning when I woke to an email from Yelp inviting me and my 180 reviews to join the Elite Squad.
Triumph washed over me as I admired my new profile badge.
Originally I chased Yelp Elite as an escape from the all-consuming life of a PhD student: If I couldn’t figure out how to model the error of a Bayesian network relating medical diseases and symptoms, at least another Yelper had just complimented me on my review of The Friendly Toast.
Over time, the separation between my student life and my Yelp life had worn thin, each fueling the other as I reviewed restaurants with the same laser-focus that I approached my research.
So here we are: Mission accomplished.
Flush with the thrill of victory, I have started searching for the next personal goal to unleash my competitive spirit.
- Should I take my reviewing prowess and apply it to Amazon items instead?
- Do I have the discipline to train to do a pull-up?
- Is it possible to do competitive yoga?
Because a PhD takes years to unfurl, develop, and bear fruit, cultivating an outside hobby with incremental progress has kept me sane.
Irene the Yelp Elite reviewer may be retiring soon, but whatever is next will be even better.